Film


Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 30, 2015

Film.12664.linh-hon-lai-vangApparently the spirits of Halloween can be quick to respond this time of year, because no sooner did I wish for a Gothic horror-based film that enables its young heroine to save herself and even her family without the help of men, whether dead or alive, than I found one on Netflix: Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin, is this feminist guide to horror movies’ runner-up for top pic this season.

Like all Gothic thrillers, Haunter centers around a house: A large house, full of mysterious rooms, previously unnoticed doors, and its fair share of ghosts. Like most Gothic thrillers, it also centers around a young woman who has become, against her will, trapped in that house. Like the good Gothic thrillers, whether the young woman in Haunter is seeing ghosts or something else or is simply going mad is gradually clarified through a series of carefully placed dramatic reveals. And like the best story in any genre, Haunter empowers the young woman—well, women, really—at the heart of the story to solve their own problems.

Breslin’s disenchanted teen could have lived in any era, but the “Siouxsie and the Banshees” tee and the posters on the walls of her room place her squarely in the early ’80s. Her house, on the other hand, has seemingly been occupied by similar young women since the late Victorian era—women trapped there by one particularly insidious person, first as a boy and then a man, who commands his house even after his death as if it were his castle. This legacy of patriarchal terror is so powerful as to be able to infect every family that lives there, even after the home’s original serial killer has died. Only one individual in each of three decades, all 30 years apart, is able to step outside of the cycle and break it, and that is the 16-year-old daughter. Despite its twists, turns, and well-timed reveals, Haunter delivers a pretty clear message: It is up to young women to save themselves, and the best way to do that is to ally themselves with other young women.

Fem Points:

+4 for a central female character who is a badass teen but has nothing at all to do with Katniss Everdeen

+2 for getting that when teenage girls describe their experiences, they may sound crazy, but they are actually the only ones speaking the truth

By contrast, there’s at least one on-demand film that you can, without a doubt, not waste your time on this year. The Hole has all of the promise that Haunter lives up to, yet falls far, far short. Obviously scripted to appeal to Gen Xers in its depiction of a modern-day latch-key kid and the vaseline-y looks of many of the shots, The Hole could have been an endearing film about a family making do in circumstances they didn’t foresee. Instead, it merely re-indicts single moms for opening up a hole for evil to enter and destroy their children (get it? open up a hole?). If it weren’t for the eldest male child in this family, no fewer than three teenagers would have lost their lives before the adult in charge so much as noticed. Note to filmmakers: I am a member of Gen X, and guess what, we lived! Even the ones who had divorced parents! They did not die by anything that came out of or went into their mother’s holes!

Fem Points:

-4 points for making something that should have been easy such a failure instead

-2 points for use of sexy-teenage-girl-next-door trope without any commentary at all

-A million for dissing single moms

If you can only watch one horror movie this season, the winner is clear: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not only written and directed by a woman, but it’s also truly suspenseful, conscious of all the tropes it evokes while still being truly original, and … did I mention written and directed by a woman?

Fem Points:

A jillion bazillion

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Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 28, 2015

crimson-peak-posterAuthor’s Note: If the thing that scares you most is disagreement among feminists, you might not want to read this post—fellow feminist film buff Natalie Wilson gave this movie a glowing review on the Ms. Blog last week. Surely a well-cast hex or two will bring Ms. Wilson over to my side…

I am the first to admit that I set myself up for disappointment with every Guillermo del Toro movie I see by setting my expectations based on Pan’s Labyrinth. It would be hard to repeat such a success, and he hasn’t done so since. Nevertheless, I keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I’m not saying Crimson Peak was bad. Actually, I thought it was pretty good. But it is about half an hour too long and, contrary to Natalie Wilson’s insightful review, for me it falls prey to too many sexist tropes to live up to Pan’s Labyrinth standards.

In the film, del Toro uses a horror template popularized by Victorian novels: A young woman is taken away by a suspicious new husband to an old castle far away from civilization. As she explores the winding maze of her new multiple-floor prison, she encounters a few ghosts that encourage her to uncover the truth about her husband and his sister.

Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe—best known for her trademark endings in which the supernatural happenings in her castles are explained as misconceptions fueled by fear, shadows in the moonlight and tricks of the impenetrable dark—opined on the nature of fear in this sort of story in an essay called “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Terror, she asserted, arises from a fear of something about to happen. Horror, on the other hand, is a reaction to something that has already happened. A good Gothic story, then, uses a carefully structured build-up of terror followed by a revelation of horror to achieve its best effect.

Crimson Peak calls upon both terror and horror, but fails to find the right balance between the two. Suspense, shadow and mystery should set the stage for the horrific revelation of the truth. Too much blood too soon desensitizes the audience to the suspense; if you already know what’s behind the door, you’re not as terrified for the ingenue standing in front of it.

Though Crimson Peak is unable to execute the part of the Gothic template that requires suspense, it does manage to perfectly replicate the patriarchal conditions that led so many women to read and write these stories in the first place. Being separated from one’s family and friends upon marriage to a virtual stranger who transplants you to a lonely, cold, falling-down house in the middle of nowhere was not an uncommon experience for the Victorian woman. It’s no wonder that it spawned so many stories of fear.

Crimson Peak‘s heroine, like so many before her, does have men willing to do anything to protect her, which is lucky for her because her primary response to stress is to dissolve into tears. But unfortunately, in addition to her untrustworthy husband, she also has an evil sister-in-law. Played by an almost unrecognizable Jessica Chastain, the crazy lady who lives in the attic is the real danger in this story. The men, it turns out, are guilty only of doing anything for love.

I can’t help but wonder why del Toro felt this story would resonate today, absent the social conditions that created the fears that Gothic stories originally represented. Are scary houses and ghosts enough to make a story interesting? Or are these patriarchal conditions more alive than I like to think? I don’t suppose many brides get swept off to country castles upon marriage, but regardless of when and where, marriage requires a massive investment of trust in another person, and for some, that can be pretty scary.

So if you want to see pretty cool ghosts that haunt a freaky house with scary corners and corridors, a representation of the fear of totally trusting another person in a Gothic form, and/or Tom Hiddleston, see Crimson Peak.

If you want to see a horror movie that empowers its lead female to make her own choices and save her own life without the intervention of men, then let me know when you find it, because so do I.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 27, 2015

girl_walks_home_06Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the Internet around Halloween without being confronted with those pesky feminist analyses of every goth girl, riot grrrl and geek girl’s favorite genre—horror—SHE’S BACK with that darn Feminist Guide to Horror Movies. And this time, she’s got an international agenda to promote.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish there were an Iranian vampire film noir that combines some real old-school Bram Stoker horror with a commentary on the gendered nature of the danger of walking the streets at night in Iran but also offers a visually stunning representation of violence that simultaneously valorizes and undermines drug/mafia culture in a style that can only be described as Tarantino-esque?”

Good news! There is! It’s called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; it’s written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and it’s available on Netflix. The film successfully blends the shadowy landscapes of Gothic novels, the humor of post-modern horror movies and the nightmare-dreamscape of a Hitchcock film. This is not to say the film is derivative—it is in fact far more than the sum of its parts.

Fem Points:

+4 for successful gender-flipping of Gothic vampire tropes

+2 for a total absence of vampires that sparkle in the sun

+1 for humor of the self-referential Wes Craven (may he RIP) sort

+A million for representations of desire that deal simultaneously with its dangers and its pleasures

If vampire movies aren’t your thing, this holiday season you might find yourself wondering, “What other sort of horror film might I view to celebrate the occasion that would not so totally offend my feminist sensibilities that I can’t enjoy the film?”

Might I suggest the New Zealand thriller Housebound. Multiple plot twists will keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you have to pause to make microwave popcorn halfway through—and the evolution of the mother-daughter relationship is truly endearing. Some really great jump-scares combined with a satisfying ending make the film both an effective moral on the importance of trust between family members and a fairly exciting watch.

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Fem Points:

+4 for a central female figure and central female relationship that doesn’t involve a man

+1 for humor of the just-at-the-right-moment-and-therefore-cathartic-Wes Craven-(may he RIP) sort

For the zombie lovers among you, you might enjoy the Australian film Wyrmwood. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead adds some unique touches to the behavior of its zombies, offers a pretty terrifying take on the mad-scientist trope and gives both the central characters each a hero journey of their own. It’s also pretty funny, and despite the awkward blackouts that make it seem like it was made for TV, it manages to create and sustain fear over time. But I must also attach a feminist advisory to this one: If I were to interview the writer, I’d have to ask, “Did you really have to make the character who was clearly descended from indigenous people a not-so-bright, sex-obsessed stereotype? Really? And did you really have to keep the central female character in what appears to be a see-through teddy the whole time? Really?”

Fem Points:

+2 for eco-positive messaging

+2 for female character with badass magical powers

-5 million for racism and sexism

-Another million for not having any relation at all to Wes Craven (may he RIP)

Front page photo via A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

title_bannerThis article was originally published by Ms. Magazine on July 8, 2015.

A sighting of that rare bird called feminist science fiction is truly a thing to celebrate. It does exist, sometimes by accident (see Alien), and sometimes on purpose (see almost anything by Octavia Butler). With Advantageous, a film written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang, directed by Phang and starring Kim, the feminism is entirely purposeful.

Influenced during her studies at Pomona College by the work of such experimental filmmakers asCheryl Dunye and Alexandra Juhasz, Phang has always tried to represent a diverse world in her films and to tell stories about identity, specifically Asian and Asian American identities. Speaking on the phone from her San Francisco office, she told the Ms. Blog that when the Independent Film and Television Service approached her seeking proposals for science fiction shorts, she jumped at the chance to make an Asian American woman the center of the film. When actor Ken Jeong (The Hangover, “Community”) saw the short, he was so moved that he offered to help turn it into a feature, and that feature went on to win the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision at Sundance.

The central character in Advantageous, Gwen Koh (Kim), is the spokesperson and head of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a cosmetic surgery company that has developed a way for the aged and infirm to move their consciousness into a younger, healthier body. When the center decides that Koh is too old to continue as their spokesperson—just as her daughter is entering an elite and very expensive private school—she decides to undergo the body-changing procedure herself.

In reality, she has been manipulated into making this decision by the real head of the center, played by a (somewhat ironically) beautifully aging Jennifer Ehle. Though this happens in a future in which cosmetic surgery has become much more than a matter of lift and tuck, Koh’s struggle with whether and how to change her body for the sake of her daughter and her career, combined with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporation, casts a complicated light on the present struggles of women trying to succeed in both career and motherhood while facing the social pressure to stay young and be perfect.

Not coincidentally, Koh, in collaboration with the company, chooses not only a young body into which to transition, but also a more ethnically ambiguous one (Freya Adams). Phang said that she cast Adams “not just because she’s a great actor, but also because she was able to play someone with a universal look. So the audience has to explore what is it about her that makes them want her to be the look of their company.”

Koh isn’t eager to take the extreme step of cosmetic surgery, so before undergoing the transition she attempts to find work through an agency she has worked with in the past. She discovers, however, that the voice on the other end of the phone is not only not a genuine supporter of her work, but isn’t even human, leading to one of the most profound conversations in the film:

Gwen: Drake, are you human being?

Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?

Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?

Drake: That is a definition of a human being?

Gwen: I didn’t know.

Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.

To say that Advantageous is a meditation on the meaning of life sounds cliché, but I can find no more fitting phrase. Both the mother and daughter at the center of the film spend the film’s duration in the pursuit of fulfillment, improvement, and a seemingly ever-elusive kind of achievement, and the tempo of the film ensures that both the characters and audience have plenty of time to think about what fulfillment really means.

Phang considers herself an idealist, and it is true that in this film, to a certain extent, daughter and mother both secure the kind of success for themselves that this near-future world believes to be paramount. But, as with the kind of feminist art that intends to make its audience think, most of the questions about the actual meaning of human existence are left unanswered. The 12-year-old daughter, Jules, (Samantha Kim) states twice—once to her original mother and once to her mother-in-a-new-body—“I don’t know why I’m alive.” Though her mother offers a few answers, and different ones each time, the meditative quality of the daughter’s question and her mother’s answers makes it hard to believe that either finds much comfort in them.

In fact, even the background moments of buildings being blown up by terrorists are greeted not with terror but with an attitude of resignation that such things cannot be helped, and the process of changing bodies is more like the passage of time during sleep than the usual explosive, special-effects ridden climaxes of most science fiction movies. The most gripping moments of the film are found in the reactions of Gwen’s family to the consequences of her choice, beautifully revealing that even in a world where technology has become advanced enough to change the nature of life, being human is still a matter of feeling intimacy, love, and loss, of wanting to understand something that is inevitably just out of our reach and, ultimately, of accepting that no matter how successful or rich you are and no matter how technologically advanced our culture is, being human is mostly a matter of not knowing.

Phang is already hard at work on her next two films: One is a science fiction romance adapted from a play by Dominic Mah called Look for Water. The other is a film about climate change based on the work of real-life scientist Inez Fung, which she hopes will inspire audiences to reengage with climate change issues before it’s too late. She was recently awarded a $40,000 Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant from the San Francisco Film Society to support herself while developing these projects, something Phang told the Ms. Blog she wouldn’t be able to live without:

I am fortunate to live in a time when organizations understand that in order to have sustainable media careers, women need support of some sort. The SFFS has a visionary program called Filmmaker360 that aims to change the representation of women in genre films by supporting women creators, which is a big deal for me and a big deal for women.

Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix.

This review is dedicated to Michele Kort, who taught me how to be journalist and how to live in the human state of not knowing.

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Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

photo1I’m staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out how to write about the thing I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I won’t say his name: I won’t give him that. I won’t read his manifesto: I won’t give him that. I won’t watch his video: I won’t give him that. The Jagweed of Isla Vista, as I prefer to call him, doesn’t deserve our attention. So why can’t I stop thinking about him?

The Jagweed was born and raised in Hollywood. The Jagweed was “treated” by a Hollywood psychiatrist – in fact, this is the second client of note of that doctor to kill himself. The Jagweed also announced his intentions to the world not just through written words but also through a reportedly well-made video that included a scenic background of Hollywood’s iconic palm trees.

Why did the Jagweed of Isla Vista kill six people and injure thirteen more? Because he couldn’t get laid. He hated women for it, and he hated men that do get laid almost as much.

Initial media reports, of course, chose to focus on the Jagweed’s mental illness rather than his misogyny. Luckily feminists were not willing to let that stand, and they have since covered his relationship to the Men’s Rights Movement and Pick-Up-Artist Hate groups extensively. Washington Post media critic Ann Hornaday even went so far as to wonder whether Hollywood culture, as created by rich, white men, had given this Jagweed the mistaken notion that his money and his masculinity entitled him to sex. As you can imagine, the rich, white males running Hollywood did not take kindly to that.

photo2The most powerful response to the tragedy appeared on twitter in the form of the massively trending hashtag #YesAllWomen. A response to #NotAllMen, which provides men with the opportunity to claim that sexism is not their responsibility because they’ve never personally done anything sexist (to which I say, really? Are you sure?), #YesAllWomen allows women to give voice to the constant sexual assaults and harassment that all women suffer. No, not all men are sexist. But all women are the victims of sexism. All the time. Every day. Every where.

I don’t imagine that #YesAllWomen will persuade MRAs and PUAs and PUAHaters or the men behind #NotAllMen that they bear any responsibility for creating a culture that views women as objects to be “gotten” and men as totally within their rights to punish women who refuse to be got. Hornaday didn’t even name Seth Rogen in her article (though she did name Judd Apatow), yet Rogen felt the need to defend himself and debunk her to his two million twitter followers, effectively silencing any conversation on the notion that film creates culture. Fan pages honoring the Jagweed have popped up on Facebook and, despite being flagged as hate sites, they have not been taken down. And of course MRA and PUAHate sites are ablaze with comments supporting his act of revenge on a world that refused to give him his due.

The truth is, film does create culture. So does Facebook. So does Twitter. So do YouTube videos like the one the Jagweed made. So do reality-TV shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which featured a husband who beat his wife, sought mental health care from the same psychiatrist that “treated” the Jagweed, and eventually killed himself.

Is Hollywood to blame for a psychopath’s killing spree? Of course not. Is the Jagweed’s psychiatrist to blame that he refused to take his medicine? Probably not. Are his parents to blame for his inflated ego and sense of entitlement? Well, possibly. Are MRAs to blame for validating his hate and adding fuel to his fire? Definitely. Are lax gun laws to blame for putting weapons in the hands of a killer? For sure.

photo3Hollywood is, in this case, the least of all the evils that plagued this fucked up, deranged, misogynist Jagweed. But Hollywood is not an innocent bystander, either. Film creates culture, and when film is created entirely by rich, white men, the culture created by film inevitably validates men like them and often invalidates the lives and desires and bodies of everyone else.

One of my favorite pieces of writing to come out of this so far is actually by a dude: Arthur Chu, a self-declared Nerd who is nevertheless able to recognize that just because he doesn’t fit the Hollywood stereotype of the alpha male does not mean that he is being systematically denied his rights as a man to “get the girl.” Chu exhorts his fellow men to accept the fact that it’s not up to them whether and with whom women have sex. It’s up to women:

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.

What did [the Jagweed] need? He didn’t need to get laid. None of us nerdy frustrated guys need to get laid. When I was an asshole with rants full of self-pity and entitlement, getting laid would not have helped me.

He needed to grow up.

We all do.

A few weekends ago, I made a pass at a guy at a party who not only rejected me, he also spent much of the party flirting with someone else. Sure, my pride was injured. Sure, I was disappointed. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been rejected. I was never the popular girl: in fact I’ve had all of two boyfriends in my whole life, one of whom became a husband who ultimately rejected me in the most profound way possible: he left me for another woman, told me that it was because I didn’t make enough money, and blamed me for everything from his failed career to his dysfunctional relationship with his mother.

What’s the diff between me and the Jagweed? I haven’t been hearing the message my whole life that I should get whatever I want whenever I want it, so I didn’t pick up a gun and punish the world because I couldn’t get laid.  Instead, I grew up.

5. Slap bets, Slapsgiving, and all the other ways we get to see the sexist and manipulative Barney get the shit kicked out of him.

4. The complex narrative structure at the heart of the show: Stories within stories, jokes that continue to pay off season after season, and a complete disruption of the idea of the past, present, and future.

3. A married couple with an active sex life and the frank discussion of female desire that Lily’s unboundedness allows for.

2. Did we ever find out what the deal was with the goat?

1. A show about a DUDE who has made finding a wife and having kids his number one priority.

Holly DerrOriginally posted at Ms. in the Biz

Got your B or MFA from a theater program? Congratulations! Looking at 30 years of consolidated loan payments even as you get further and further away from the training you’re still paying for? Take heart! Your training matters, even in Hollywood. Just ask Winona Ryder, Felicity Huffman, Alison Brie, Holly Hunter, and Laura Linney — all of whom have theater degrees.

In many ways, the worlds of film, television, and web series seem like water to theater’s oil – they only mix when you really shake things up. But even though you may never have to call upon your ability to perfectly execute an historically accurate Restoration curtsy, many of the skills you learned and practiced in theater school can be of use. Here are a few of the things that set trained actors apart in Hollywood:

1. Dialects.

Being able to walk in to a first audition and perfectly execute a specific dialect is not a skill that every actor has, yet that very skill is in high demand. You can be ready at a moment’s notice to perform the wide variety of accents employed in The Walking Dead, which vary both by geography and class; you are ready for any of the increasingly popular genre TV shows set in mythical lands where everyone speaks with some version of an accent from the British Empire, like Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland; and you’re perfect for geographically and culturally specific dramas like Justified (set in Kentucky) and Nashville. Sure, those productions can afford to hire a dialect coach, but the ability to nail it in the audition gives you a decided edge. It also makes you especially appealing for smaller-budget productions. So rest assured, those hours spent learning IPA (no, I’m not talking about beer) may come in handy yet.

2. The Method of Physical Actions.

Often confused with American “method acting,” Stanislavsky’s Method of Physical Actions is actually a way of creating character and telling story through movement. Stanislavsky’s system – though rarely practiced in its complete form – creates a carefully designed physical script that an actor can replicate exactly, night after night. What does this have to do with film? An actor who has trained in the System can hit her mark on every single take while also varying the inner emotional experience, providing editors and directors with a million different pieces that can be fit together perfectly without anyone having to worry about continuity. Looking to refresh your memory of the process? Check out the new, improved translations of Stanislavsky’s acting bible An Actor’s Work.

3. The Method.

Derived from the Russian Method of Physical Actions, the American Method focuses on the actor’s internal experience. Though onstage it all too often leads to an overwrought, self-indulgent performance, on film, it can be a powerful tool for generating the kind of inner intensity that the camera craves. If you studied the Method, you are ready for your close up.

4. Script analysis.

The actor’s job, whether on stage or screen, is to realize her specific character in as much detail as possible. Too often for screen actors, this means coming in, executing your role (often without the other actors in the scene even being there), and getting out of the way. Theater actors have a distinct advantage here: Years of scene study means that you can realize not only your character, but also realize your character’s function in the whole story. Trained to take the text as a whole into account, even when appearing in only one scene, you can make sure your performance integrates seamlessly into the whole. The key? Do your own dramaturgy.

5. Collaboration.

Remember how, after spending two to three years shut up together in a dark room, you and your classmates had to perform a thesis or final project? And you had to do it like professionals, even when playing opposite the person who broke your heart last year who’s now dating your best friend/costar in a production directed by the professor of whom you’re terrified? Compared to this, the fact that in Hollywood we often have to work with people we don’t like, many of whom are narcissists with incredible power to make or break you, is small beans.

6. Vocal training.

Looking for a place to use the training you got from one of the top voice teachers in the country and practiced doing the likes of Shakespeare and Moliere? Look to the voice-over world. Some films and television shows can get away with Mumbly Joe as an actor because the close up on the person’s lips makes them understandable. But without a body, all you have is your voice, so use your training to make a few bucks from corporate America doing voice overs, or put some effort into breaking in to animation. And don’t forget to warm up. All together now: Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…..

7. THE LOS ANGELES THEATER COMMUNITY IS THE BOMB.

No, you can’t make a living in it. But you can make a living as a commercial/tv/film/web actor while also performing live in classics, new plays, experimental theater, and international festivals. If you haven’t looked into yet, do it. Many Los Angeles theaters have figured out a way to work around the schedules of working actors to mount productions of artistic integrity and intellectual and/or political value. You can not only practice the expensive skills you paid for in your theater program, you can also connect with other actors, directors, and producers invested in doing both.

I’m not saying that the day you pay your final installment on your loan you won’t have trouble remembering what exactly you did during that all-too-brief period in your twenties. You probably will. But you will also undoubtedly have used what you learned, whether in a career in the theater, in film and television or as a well-rounded human being capable of understanding the connections between all of the liberal arts and of factoring those understandings into the way you live your life as a friend, a citizen, and a human being.

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